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Reading list: How Philadelphia schools are grappling with gun violence

A school official walks in front of a sign in a cavernous hall that reads “We Have a Dream.”

Principal Keisha Wilkins walks through the halls of Martin Luther King High School in the East Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. Wilkins finds herself among school leaders balancing students’ academic and personal needs amid growing gun violence throughout the city.

Kriston Jae Bethel for Chalkbeat

This series seeks to amplify efforts to better support the wellness of students and school staff during this challenging comeback year.
PennGSE sponsor box

Thank you to our event sponsor

Special thanks to our sponsor, ​​Penn GSE Office of School & Community Engagement

Amid rising gun violence in Philadelphia, educators and students are calling for greater support, including more funding for trauma-responsive programming, grief counseling, recreational support, and summer programming.

Violence in Philadelphia has reached historic levels, with the city surpassing 500 homicides last year, the highest number since 1990. Teenagers and children have been swept up in this surge.  This reality is taking a toll on schools, which are already reeling from the disruption of the pandemic and now struggle to meet the mental health needs of students who have been shot, lost loved ones, or fear for their own safety.

As Philadelphia officials outline steps to stem violence in and around schools, Chalkbeat wants to hear directly from students, educators, and school leaders on how schools can better support students experiencing community trauma. How can schools best spend precious resources? What do students feel has made a difference in their own lives? What resources can help equip educators? (Have you been affected by gun violence in Philadelphia? We want to hear from you here.)

During an April 20 discussion hosted by Chalkbeat Philadelphia and Resolve Philly, students, experts, and educators spoke about their suggestions for the Philadelphia school district. Read on for Chalkbeat’s reading list for event attendees and anyone who wants to better understand how these issues are playing out in Philadelphia schools and beyond.

Philly mental health resources

Mental health resources for students, educators, and parents

Professional counseling: The Anti-Violence Partnership offers free, professional counseling to adult and child co-victims of homicide and those who have been traumatized by other forms of violence. These services are provided at their offices in the Art Museum area and in West Philadelphia. Fill out this form to learn more or call 215-567-6776.

Gun violence resource guide: Dozens of organizations across Philadelphia are dedicated to helping those affected by gun violence. Up the Block has a searchable guide, in Spanish and English, available online. This project was created and is maintained by The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering gun violence. Read more about the project here.

Mentorship programs: Philadelphia has dozens of programs seeking to provide supportive mentorship environments for youth. Learn more about the programs and how to get in touch with organizers from the Fun Times.

For emergencies: Contact the Philadelphia Mobile Emergency Team at 215-685-6440, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or for all other emergencies, call 911.

We hope you find these compiled stories and list of resources helpful. Do you have any remaining questions? Or story ideas for us? Reach out at philly.tips@chalkbeat.org.

Behind bars: School inside Philly’s juvenile center feels brunt of city’s gun violence

Students and faculty talk around a large conference table, all wearing protective masks.

A student at the Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Center School Program shares their thoughts on the city’s gun violence during an interview.

Kriston Jae Bethel for Chalkbeat

The spike in Philadelphia youth involved in gun violence has staff at the school district’s Juvenile Justice Services Center School calling for help.

The goal of the center’s school is to keep students on track with their education and help them transition back to a traditional school after their arrest. But Principal Deana Ramsey said the rise in gun violence has not been met with an increase in staffing or mental health supports, leading her and others to worry the center isn’t fulfilling its mission to students.

The city’s gun violence crisis, coming amid the coronavirus pandemic, has put pressure on the West Philadelphia center, whose students accounted for 12.7% of all shooting victims enrolled in city schools through April of last school year, according to school district data.

Read the full story.

Some kids ‘don’t come back’: One Philly school grapples with gun violence

Principal Keisha Wilkins walks through the auditorium of Martin Luther King High School in Philadelphia.

Principal Keisha Wilkins walks through the auditorium of Martin Luther King High School in Philadelphia as the school’s cheerleading squad practices on the stage.

Kriston Jae Bethel for Chalkbeat

In more than six years as principal of Martin Luther King High School in Philadelphia, Keisha Wilkins has developed a ritual of sending students off in the afternoon with the same parting words: “I love you, be safe, see you tomorrow.”

But twice in the past year at the 551-student school in Philadelphia’s West Oak Lane neighborhood, students haven’t returned. A junior was found shot to death while attending a vigil for another shooting victim last October. And a junior was found shot in the head on Mother’s Day, sitting in a car around the corner from his grandmother’s house.

“There are some kids that don’t come back the next day,” she said, “and it’s not because they don’t want to come back, but it’s because their life is taken prematurely because they had to make adult decisions as children. It’s very hard for us as a school.”

School leaders find themselves balancing these students’ academic and personal needs. For Wilkins, this means developing a relationship with local police officers, offering weekly grief counseling, and searching for programming to keep students on the right track. But she knows she is facing an uphill battle — she estimates 30 teens and young adults with ties to the school have been murdered during her tenure.

“You can’t normalize violence, can’t normalize grief, but you can at least give some outlet,” she said.

Read the full story.

‘Our schools are a safe place’: Philadelphia officials outline steps to stem violence in and around schools

A hallway lined with student artwork on white brick walls.

Student art lines a hallway as staff enter a room at the Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Center School Program.

Kriston Jae Bethel for Chalkbeat

Amid a troubling wave of gun violence impacting the lives of Philadelphia students, the district’s director of school safety declared that city leaders are mobilizing resources and cementing collaborations to keep children out of harm’s way.

“Our schools are a safe place,” said Kevin Bethel, a former deputy police commissioner who spent 30 years with the department before joining the district two years ago. “They’ve always been a safe place. They continue to be one of the safest places in the city of Philadelphia regardless of the incidents we’ve had recently. Our schools are safe.”

Bethel’s declaration came during a press conference where he and Superintendent William Hite announced that, as part of their strategy to keep students safe, the district plans to pay community members to help patrol areas around school buildings during arrival and dismissal.

Read the full story.

The Toll/Chalkbeat event sidebar

This event is the third in a four-part national Chalkbeat series titled COVID and Mental Health, which seeks to amplify efforts to better support the wellness of students and school staff during this challenging comeback year. This event is also part of The Toll: The Roots and Costs of Gun Violence in Philadelphia, a solutions-focused series from the collaborative reporting project Broke in Philly. Special thanks to our sponsor, Penn GSE Office of School & Community Engagement.

Caroline Bauman connects Chalkbeat journalists with our readers as the community engagement manager and previously reported at Chalkbeat Tennessee. Connect with Caroline at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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